I was very pleased when I found that my cousin left behind his copy of Michael Dirda's Classics for Pleasure. Mr Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic for the Washington Post, and for a while now, I've had my eye on his collection of essays on book recommendations.
I'll be brief: If you're looking for a list that contains Shakespeare or Tolstoy or Dickens, then you should look elsewhere. Instead, Mr Dirda makes such an engaging and eloquent case for slightly-less-canon-but-nonetheless-essential-literary-reads that I am sorely tempted to go out and search for the works that I have not encountered yet (and there are a lot). Personally, I've been inspired to look for the epic Shanameh the Icelandic family sagas mentioned here. Mr Dirda's recommendations are arranged according to genre, from humor to epics to adventure, which makes reading the book quite smooth and seamless. For example: his category "The Way We Live Now" mentions a range that includes Petronius, Anton Chekov, José Maria Eça de Queiros and Zora Neale Hurston while his "Encyclopedic Visions" tackle Ovid, Ezra Pound, and Philip K Dick, among others. One moment you can be reading up on Georgette Heyer's Regency romances and then spend the next exploring HP Lovecraft's legacy to weird fiction. Mr Dirda's concise manner affords the reader a brief summary of what to expect from the featured authors, as well as occasional excerpts and the merits and the contributions of the work to the genre as a whole.
If there is anything that you will certainly take away from this, then it is the exciting compulsion to read every author and work that Mr Dirda recommends. Here is a massive TBR list for any reader. In the end, the pleasure is all ours.